‘Racing lifer’ recalls fast times with Stewart

Clifford native Troy Tabata is a “racing lifer.”

Born in 1969, the Hauser High School graduate has seen the ups and downs of being a racer and promoter.

Tabata’s late dad, Ray, who passed away at the age of 69 in 1989, drove and owned racecars for many years. But when Troy came along, the elder Tabata became a spectator, taking his young son to races all over Indiana.

That bond between father and son in the earlier days helped foster Troy’s love for the sport.

Ray Tabata built flathead 6-cylinders and Chevy 6-cylinders. He had several top-notch drivers pilot his self-built creations, including Madison brothers Tommy and Ron “Peewee” Day, along with Joe King. Tabata and his drivers raced “stockcars” and a class called “rails.”

Affectionately known as “Sumo” to friends and racers, Troy Tabata started to take an interest in helping work on the cars at an early age.

“When I was young growing up in Clifford, Phil Fultz lived there and he had been racing since the 1950s,” Tabata said. “He and Dick Cale had a car. I got to know them pretty well. When I got older and was able to go into the pits I would go with Phil.

“By then, Rick Cherry of Columbus and Phil had a car. I just thought it was pretty cool to go to the pits. See all the drivers and crews working on the cars. That when I started to realize that is what I wanted to do.

“If my dad didn’t take me to the races, it was one of our neighbors, Bill Mitchell. I remember back in the 1970s when we would go to two racetracks in one night. We would go to Lawrenceburg, back when they were an hour ahead of us, and then on the way home stop at Twin Cities in Vernon to watch the features.”

At age 14, Tabata became involved in working on racecars when Columbus native and racer Darrell Smallwood moved to Clifford. “He, his sons and myself would go all over racing. It was so much fun. Here I was a teenager living out a dream,” Tabata said.

Then one day, Tabata’s life changed forever. He had known three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart from his go-kart days. They hit it off immediately.

“I started to hang out at his house,” Tabata said. “We played video games, talked racing and then one day I asked him if I could tag along with him at one of his NASCAR races. He said ‘Yes,’ and that began a whirlwind friendship that is still intact today.”

“His plane came to Columbus to pick me up. I will never forget it. We flew to Martinsville, Virginia, for a Cup race. Then he flew me to Watkins Glen (New York) and he won there. So I sort of became his good luck charm, he said. I got to do things only people can dream about. I’m so fortunate for his friendship. He has a done a lot for me and other people. He is one of a kind, that’s for sure.”

Tabata’s biggest thrill was being with Stewart when he won at Daytona (Florida) International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“For a boy from Indiana to go to the two most famous tracks in the world and watch a friend win, it’s an incredible feeling.”

In 2013, Tabata was given an opportunity to promote Twin Cities Raceway Park. It was a challenge he thought he was up to, but it ended in disappointment. He was reluctant to talk about the experience. He did not go into details about why things went wrong, just that one year of promoting was enough for him.

“I was so pumped up about it,” he said. “I thought I was meant to do it. I feel like the racers are all my friends. I got to see a different side of things. I learned a lot about why things are the way they are. I don’t regret taking the position. It just didn’t work out.”

Late last year Tabata returned to what he loves most, working on racecars.

“It was good to get back to the track doing what I wanted,” he said. “The sting of the year before took a while to wear off. I am back where I want to be.”

In 2015 Tabata will team up with Jim Beeman Motorsports of North Vernon as crew chief on both a super late model and crate car. Beeman has hired three-time UMP Modified champion Devin Gilpin of Columbus as driver of the super late model.

“The sky is the limit on Devin’s talent,” Tabata said. “He has won 100 features the last three years. I can’t believe nobody has given him the chance to move up.”

The team plans to debut March 14 at Brownstown Speedway.